This is more of an essay than a blog post. I wrote it at the beginning of the week, and there has been so much more violence since then already. As the shootings continue over race, uniform, and religion, I believe it's even more true. So, after some internal debate, I have decided to go ahead and post it.
I live in downtown Orlando, about 3.4 miles from Pulse nightclub. It's on the south side, and I'm on the north. On Sunday, June 12, 2016, I woke up to my phone buzzing text messages at me. My teenaged daughter was in New York with her performing arts group, and she'd already heard about the shooting. I found out about it from her. She and I spent the morning texting back and forth, reporting to each other as we checked on the safety of our friends. The brother of one of the girls traveling with her was recovering in the hospital. A dancer whose troupe I'd collaborated with during Creative City, one of Orlando's many arts events, had passed away. His boyfriend, a former counselor from my partner group HD Counseling, was missing. We'd later learn he had also passed away.
We were blessed with the luxury of not losing people close to us, but were keenly aware of just how close we had been to those lost. One degree of separation is a very thin distance.
I watched as the world wrapped its arms around Orlando and the LGBTQ community. When my daughter and her traveling group went to pay their respects at the 9/11 memorial, they found that the people of New York had set up a makeshift tribute to our home, donning a tree with flowers and prayer ribbons in honor of those affected by the shooting. Down the street from her hotel, Broadway actors dedicated their most celebrated night of the year to our home and to supporting diversity. Love is love is love is love is love is love is love.
I felt grateful that my daughter was in a place that offered so much comfort when she was far from home and her own minority group had been so violently targeted where she lives.
London went rainbow colored. Anti-ISIS Muslims marched for peace in groups of thousands. Australia lit up bridges and buildings for us. Germany, Paris, Canada, the Los Angeles Pride Parade, artists and musicians worldwide - everywhere people stood vigil.
For just a moment, the whole world held its breath and said, "We are all Us. There is no Them. We are all in this together."
Here in Orlando, I attended the first city-wide vigil at Dr. Phillips Center, where God sent 49 birds flying over us at the sound of the 49 tolls of the bell at First United Methodist, which stood next door. As I was leaving, I passed a Muslim woman holding a handmade sign of apology on behalf of her faith community. I asked if I could hug her. She accepted and started sobbing. "I'm so sorry," she kept saying.
By the time I got home that night, the moment was over. Already, Trump had congratulated himself on being right about all Muslims. Already, there were "This is not Orlando" posts about the man from Ft. Pierce who declared himself a soldier for jihad against the people he'd partied with and dated.
Before I go further, I want to say: I'm incredibly proud of my city - we are a city that doesn't need a tragedy to come together. Every year, tens of thousands of Orlandoans unite to walk against breast cancer, to take over downtown with dance, painting, song, story, and every other arts media imaginable. Every year we celebrate Independence Day around Lake Eola. We shut down Orange Avenue for Light Up Orlando each winter. In June, we come out for Pride Month whatever orientation we may be. Before the Supreme Court ruling that a ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional for all states, our Mayor had already set up a domestic partner registry - the highest level of domestic rights he could grant at the time because the state of Florida did not allow gay marriage. I've lived here for about 30 years, and I've watched the city become ever more inclusive over time.
But with diversity also comes divide. We have racism in Orlando, some of which is so systemic that it's embedded in upcoming school closures and rezonings. We have as many religious factions as we do religious friendships. Where some churches here stepped up and offered free funeral services for Pulse victims, there was at least one church who refused to hold a service for one of its own choir members who passed away because of his sexual orientation.
The raw brutality and close proximity of the Pulse shooting quieted these divides in many of us, and is continuing to bring out what is most beautiful, most strong, and most unified about us. But when we look at Omar Mateen and say he's not like us, we're creating a new divide.
We are saying: This is Us. He is Them.
And by doing this, we are giving him what he wanted.
All of the evidence about this man currently points to a person whose sexuality was in contradiction with his own religion. It points to a man who hated himself and believed he was condemned because his particular understanding of his faith said he could not be both Us and Them at the same time. He had to choose one or the other. He could not be good and gay because in his mind these two categories were contradictory.
Omar Mateen believed he had to choose which category would be his Us and which would be his Them.
Declaring for ISIS in the seconds before killing himself, and the people he had danced with and dated, was his pledge of allegiance to an Us and against a Them.
And our saying he is not one of Us is agreeing with him.
It is right to condemn violence and hate crime. It is right to condemn terrorism. It is right that we should punish people who commit these acts.
But chances are, we share the same core emotions that motivate them: anger, fear, insecurity, faith.
Instead of deepening the divide by imitating the shooter, by agreeing there is an Us and a Them, we must choose to acknowledge our own darkness. If we pretend it's not there, it has a much better chance of taking over, of making us believe we have to separate ourselves into categories instead of seeing the whole truth: that we are all both.
Because we also share some other core emotions: love, desire, joy, faith.
We don't have to be Us vs. Them. We can be just Us.
Just Us knows that we all have the potential to be hateful, violent, cruel.
Just Us acknowledges the darkness in ourselves so that we can consciously choose a different path.
Just Us does not exclude people from living full lives when they differ from each other because Just Us knows that we ourselves are contradictory, full of dark and light and everything in between. Just Us isn't so scared of the truth that we have to pretend it's only true about someone else.
Just Us takes away the chance to separate ourselves from whole groups of humans, and makes room for us to condemn the hate and violence in ourselves instead of pointing angrily at others. Pointing fingers never leads to a productive solution. You can be as correct as it is possible to be, but that won't change someone else's mind. Looking for similarities and agreeing to make room for our differences is the only way to make diversity really work. And as long as there is more than one human living on the planet, there will be diversity, so it makes sense to do our best to make it work.
I do not excuse Omar Mateen. I believe Orlando's medical examiner Joshua Stephany acted in honor when he would not let the shooter's body enter the same room of the morgue as his victims. This is part of condemning violence and hate crime and terrorism: once a person gives into the belief that s/he is not one of Us and brings trauma down because of it, we must not excuse that act.
But I also believe that if we are going to prevent further violence, whether by enacting stronger gun laws or by having every man woman and child carry a gun, whether by practicing our religions or practicing our atheism - as members of countless races, economic backgrounds, educational levels, and any other category we can find to separate us from each other - if we are going to prevent further violence, it will be because we begin to see every other human that shares this planet with Us as one of Us.
The best tribute we can pay to the victims and the traumatized is to look at ourselves, see where we hate, where we are cruel, where we are violent, and own up to it. Be honest with ourselves and each other. We can't expect to change anything as long as we conveniently separate ourselves from the ugliness we see in others simply because it helps us feel our own ugliness is less extreme. Given the right circumstances, we all have the potential to bring trauma on others.
The beautiful thing is that we also all have the potential to love and let love. If a conservative Christian church can say, bring us your lost ones and we will honor them, regardless of whether they fit our moral code; if thousands of Muslims can take to the streets to proclaim love and peace; if a whole world can unite over the deaths of 49 people and the wounds of 53 of their loved ones, we can trust that what is good in us can win.
That's the real Us vs. Them. It's inside us. Let Us agree to love without seeking to control each other. Let us see the fear and anger in others and say: I have that, too, and we can navigate it together instead of tearing ourselves and each other in half. It doesn't mean we all agree with each other. It means we all make room for each other.
Violence, hate crime, and terrorism are wrong because all of these pretend that there is an Us and a Them. These acts are born out of the lie that we are more different than we are similar, and that being different from each other is wrong. When any strain of faith or way of life relies on these acts, it's the most open acknowledgement of fear that someone else's different way of doing things is somehow a threat to that faith. Seeking power over others by calling them Them is really nothing but an expression of fear about the vulnerability of our own beliefs and choices.
The truth is, we are all Us.
This is Us: www.cnn.com/2016/06/13/world/orlando-shooting-world-reaction/